Two contrasting items this week about the idea that celebrities who are either seen to be endorsing drug use or actively campaigning against it, have any influence on decision-making among young people.
The first is an opinion piece by Guy Bentley in the Washington Examiner about the continuing controversy over movie stars smoking on-screen. It was prompted by this report, which showed the use or implied use of tobacco in top-grossing movies rose 72 percent from 2010 to 2016. In PG-13 movies these "tobacco incidents" rose 43 percent, and there was a 90 percent increase for R-rated movies. The researchers included e-cigarettes in their category of tobacco incidents, despite the total lack of tobacco in an e-cigarette. It will therefore come as no shock that one of the authors of this report was one S. Glantz and Bentley goes on to describe why this kind of causal relationship research is deeply flawed.
The other research item comes from the Journal of Health Psychology where the authors conclude that, “celebrities endorsing e-cigarette brands on social media may exert a strong influence on e-cigarette uptake”.
Celebrity-endorsed e-cigarette brand Instagram advertisements: Effects on young adults' attitudes towards e-cigarettes and smoking intentions.
To be honest though, I remain quite sceptical of the idea that celebrities exert much if any influence on young people when it comes to decisions about using or not using drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and now e-cigarettes.
Back in 1966, the folk singer Donovan was the first British musician to appear in court on a drugs charge. The judge solemnly intoned from the bench that as a ‘pop star’ Donovan was a role model to young people and so had a responsibility to behave himself. This became a regular pop star drug bust trope down the years even into the 1980s and Boy George’s court appearance. Liverpool footballer Robbie Fowler was criticised for miming coke snorting along a white football goal line during a match and more recently we have seen boy band members smoking cannabis on YouTube and footballers having a giggle on nitrous oxide. By contrast these same groups have been wheeled out by politicians as part of ‘prevention campaigns’ to push the ‘Just Say No’ line. I have been a government adviser on drug communications and I always said when these ideas came up in meetings (from political advisers with stars in their eyes) ‘Don’t go there because this week’s shining paragon of virtue could be next week’s tabloid wet dream – the dope smoking drug fiend’.
There is a common-sense view that musicians for example must be influential. After all, concerts sell out, millions of dollars spent on merchandise and tens of thousands follow on Twitter. But there isn’t a shred of evidence that celebrities actually influence the drug-using decision-making process. All the surveys on drug taking influences I have seen over the years, put media stars way down the list and this is hardly surprising. These sorts of decisions are taken at a very localised and personal level; your friends, your immediate family, your own personal and emotional make-up, how you see yourself in the world, your local area – this list is very long and really does not include the antics of some remote musician or footballer. Nor do I believe these people should be expected to be ‘role models’. Many have been accidentally propelled into the limelight often as a result of being in the right place at the right time with the right song, or the ability to play football better than their mates. They certainly had no aspirations to be role models, nor have sought to wear the mantle.
The closest examples I can think of to a link between drug use and aspirations to high achievement would be the belief among jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s that if you wanted to play as well as Charlie Parker, you had to shoot heroin. Similarly, there may well be a belief among young athletes that anabolic steroids or human growth hormone offer a short cut to Olympic gold. But this is drug use as misguided means to an end, not driven simply by fan worship.
This week’s Chapman-Glantz Award for ‘Iffy Science’ goes to research from Leeds University claiming that young e-cigarette users are more likely to go on to smoke cigarettes. Clive Bates observes, “It is another "kids who try stuff, try stuff" finding, with the authors hugely over-interpreting one specific finding about e-cig trialists with no friends who smoke. But then look what happens... communications designed to imply discovery of a gateway effect”.
Linda Baud in her takedown of the research writes, “Many of the reasons why this study doesn’t demonstrate that e-cigarette use causes smoking are described by the authors themselves in this carefully written article. These include the facts that: many students who participated in the baseline survey couldn’t be followed up one year later; that use of e-cigarettes was only self-reported; that important questions about e-cigarettes were not included (type of device and whether they contained nicotine); that only ‘ever use’ (experimentation) of both e-cigarettes and tobacco was measured; and that the study took place at a time when important policies that we now have in the UK to limit youth experimentation with e-cigarettes (age of sale, advertising bans) had not yet been introduced. Other factors not measured in the study may be relevant in considering why teenagers experiment with tobacco or e-cigarettes. These include a shared tendency towards sensation seeking and risk-taking and the fact that these teenagers may engage in other risky behaviours like alcohol or drug use which weren’t considered in the article”.
Read the rest here:
In my report for the GFN conference this year, I mentioned Maria Foltea’s presentation in which she intriguingly suggested that it might be against World Trade Organisation trading rules for a country to ban the import of one ‘like’ product but not another ‘like’ it. And it would be up to the banning country to demonstrate that one product presented a public health danger, which in the case of e-cigarettes it clearly couldn’t. Now she has written a technically dense (but worth reading) paper on the workings of the WTO process and how you would go about demonstrating ‘like’. She does make the critical point that given the growing body of evidence in favour of e-cigarette safety, it would be very hard for a banning country if challenged, to produce the scientific and clinical evidence justifying an import ban.
Interesting example of confluence in public health and criminal justice drug policy from Oregon, where they have raised the age requirement for buying tobacco products to 21, while at the same time reducing the penalties possession of controlled drugs. The tobacco law does include vaping products which has divided opinion. Alex Clark, the Executive Director of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, which advocates for users of smoke-free tobacco products including e-cigarettes, argued that raising the smoking age would lead to more "black market activity" as people under the age of 21 seek out alternative sources of tobacco. However, JUUL Labs, which sells vaporizers, has raised the minimum age to buy its products online to 21. In a statement to TIME, CEO Tyler Goldman emphasized that his company sells products "designed for existing adult smokers to switch."
Within the framework of ‘moral psychology’, a very good article by Lynn Kozlowski about how prohibitionist and anti-harm reduction public health policy works against the best interests of young people at most risk simply to ‘protect’ those at least risk from alleged contamination. The focus is on tobacco control but as he says can be applied to any other potentially risky activity engaged in by young people.
And finally….if you are planning a trip to Thailand, have a great time, but don’t even think about vaping out there!